Ginger Baker, Why?

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 06.24.14 in Reviews

Most everybody knows two things about Ginger Baker: He became one of the most influential drummers in rock history thanks to his tenure in Cream, and that he is a thoroughgoing prick. So naturally, Baker snarls at questions about Cream but touts the unflattering film documentary Beware of Mr. Baker on his website and in the liner notes to Why?

The context is jazz, but Baker remains a rhythmic dynamo of density and sophistication

But Baker’s first album in 16 years is about neither of those things. Instead it’s a reaffirmation of the enormous power, density and polyrhythmic creativity of his drumming and how it slides into a jazz context without changing his signature style. Fans of his work in Cream and Blind Faith will find his flams and familiar tom-tom and bass drum-oriented plundering of the beat nearly as thrilling on jazz standards such as Sonny Rollins’ calypso “St. Thomas” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” as on “White Room” or “Sunshine of Your Love.”

If anything, Baker’s polyrhythms have gotten more sophisticated due to his extended time in Africa. The best parts of Why? invariably involve him engaging African percussionist and longtime cohort Abass Dodoo in circular delirium, as on Ron Miles’ opener, “Ginger Spice” and the traditional Nigerian tune “Aiko Biaye” (which has a hint of “Tequila” in its melody).

The other members of the quartet include bassist Alec Dankworth, the son of jazz artists John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, whose probing tone is mostly deployed as a lead instrument; and the venerable saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who has his moments on “Cyril Davis” and especially “Aiko Biaye,” but feels slightly out of his element.

Baker has lung problems and will turn 75 in August of 2014. Chances to hear him like this, still combining rhythmic depth with such brute force, are to be cherished.